By Prayaag Akbar

Publisher: Simon & Schuster India

Pages: 205

Price: Rs 599


My husband thinks we cannot find her. His voice is raw, rusted, like he was screaming earlier.

“When will you understand, Shalini? It’s been sixteen years.”

“You think I don’t know? Let’s just get on with this.”

Riz looks at me, bobbles his head but doesn’t say anything. In the sinking light his old-man stubble glitters like salt grain. It is he who doesn’t understand. I’m almost there.

As we walk from the broad pavement to a small rectangle of grass he pulls out two candles from the satchel. Purity One, first of the sector walls, stretches out across us to the edges of the dusk, either end into the swirling ash. Gritty grey brick. Sixty feet high. Wrapping around the political quarter, sealing off the broad, tree-lined avenues, the colonial bungalows, the Ministries, the old Turkic gardens. The Council oversees the divided city from the political quarter, from behind Purity One.

Standing where we are now the wall is shimmering. Broad iridescent streaks, shifting in the way green and brilliant purple dance on the throat of a pigeon. (Pigeons infest this place.) Purity One is believed to have an inscrutable power. People come here to pray, to plead. Take my own situation. I should be standing alone yet here Riz is, by my side, etched sharp against the dusk as anything around us.

Not far from where we are there is a small room, abutting the wall. On the roof a white flag flutters the Council’s insignia, black pyramid, white tip. Hundreds of people shoulder past each other to get to this room. In the great heave all we see is a trapezoid of blue light where the double door extends above the devotees. A cage-like barrier divides the room; behind the wire is the holiest part of the wall, centre of the lowest line of bricks, painted ochre-like red. They worship this brick. They call it the first brick of Purity One.

Riz knelt to dig a hole in the earth. His back is badly hunched. Once there was a curving furrow of pebble-like muscles under each shoulder blade from hours every day on the squash court, but now, bent over the ground, he looked like a tortoise retreating into its shell.

I got down beside him, creaky myself. “These are different candles,” I said, rolling one about my palm. Thick, a spiral design wrapping neatly around the white wax.

“I found them near work. More expensive, but what the hell. It’s her birthday.” He gave a tired smile. “Smell them. I think she’d like this smell.”

We come to the wall every year on Leila’s birthday.

A karate teacher waddled a file of white-kitted children to an emptier stretch along Purity One. Within touching distance of the wall they stopped and bowed. A woman in a sequined burqa was talking quietly with her daughters. One of the girls was in a purple headscarf with a scalloped hem, while the younger, perhaps not of age, was dressed like any girl her age. They inserted prayers written on scraps of paper into gaps between the bricks.

“How strong, to leverage their bodies this way,” I said.

“It doesn’t seem possible,” Riz replied. “This sheer face. How are they doing it?”

We brought out a plastic shovel from Riz’s bag. Along the yellow scoop the plastic had frayed and turned pasty white. The shovel was part of a set we’d bought Leila before a beach holiday. There was a sticker on the bucket, of a bear sliding down a rainbow, that she’d pick at. We bring the shovel every year but it’s too blunt, too flimsy for the dry, tight soil of this patch facing Purity One. The real work we always do with our fingers. Soon we had holes two inches deep. We stood our candles in the earth. Packed the cavities with soil. Twenty minutes we sat and around us a scatter of bent and blacked sticks grew as the wind time and again guttered the candles.

Purity One is the only sector wall that’s not impossibly filthy. People come here to pray. Every other sector wall in the city has a foot-deep sea of refuse stacked up against its base, spreading out from the pavement onto the road. The stench is overwhelming by any of these walls, it hits you in the stomach. No one seems able to do anything. Sometimes you see Slummers wading through it, looking for things to sell.

A huge cheer went up. Two young men were visible above the thicket of heads, attempting the wall. They wore only white nylon basketball shorts with oilskin pouches tied at their chests, moving with upward pounces, at unnerving speed, backs, calves, arms twitching and tensing, bodies bending double and right around like jackknives. One of the men was very dark-skinned.

The other had a tuft of hair in the middle of his back. With the tips of fingers and bare toes they’d get a hold in the minute crannies and ledges between the uneven bricks, swinging higher all the time. The mob hummed with reverence.

“How strong, to leverage their bodies this way,” I said.

“It doesn’t seem possible,” Riz replied. “This sheer face. How are they doing it?”

“Why not. Like those guys who pull giant chariots by themselves with metal hooks buried into their backs.”

“Or the Shias. Whipping themselves to mush.”

The dark man tensed into a crouch and sprung to a jutting brick above. He couldn’t grab on. As he fell through the air he hammered the wall with his fingertips, striking like a snake at its surface. On the fourth attempt the fingers stuck. His shoulder wrenched and his body twisted but he clung on with a soft, stifled cry. We exhaled as one. He swung like a pendulum from one hand, grinning down at us unflustered, until he found a niche for his other. Extending his legs, he swung them up over his head so now he was upside down, biceps bursting, lank hair falling in perfect glistening straights like granite rain. He took a foothold and pulled himself upright. Relief in the cheering now.

Extracted with permission from Leila, by Prayaag Akbar, published by Simon & Schuster India

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